With its flickering candles, comfy banquettes, big wines, rich warming comfort foods and decadent desserts, nothing says romance like the French bistro. With Valentine's Day around the corner, the bistro's just the thing to kindle that burgeoning romance, and we've got you covered with this guide to some of Chicago's best.
Find a friendly proprietor and a warm vibe at Cafe Le Coq
You'd think a neighborhood packed with million-dollar Frank Lloyd Wright-designed mansions would be a restaurant mecca, but the sleepy hamlet of Oak Park is anything but. One major exception: Cafe Le Coq. Every good bistro has its idiosyncratic owner, and here it's the goateed Jim August, whose eyes constantly dart over a pair of reading glasses as he peruses the reservation book. August mans the maitre d' station like Ahab at the wheelhouse of the Pequod, steering customers past the bar laden with rooster sculptures and into the amber and leather confines of the dining room. Classics rule, from salad Lyonnaise with a poached egg yolk perched upon a mountain of frisee to steak sided by a Seussian nest of pomme frites.
A Parisian oasis in Little Italy awaits at Chez Joel
A cocoon of warmth lit by flickering candles, wafts of blackberry cassis and roiling garlic from fresh escargots float through Chez Joel. It's the perfect place to rejuvenate your world-weary body while luxuriating under burgundy crown moldings and buttery hued walls. Dishes are served with a flourish in metal-domed serving dishes: Every entree at the table is revealed simultaneously by a team of waiters. The bouillabaisse's plump langoustines, flaky hunks of whitefish and briny clams mingle in a saffron-tinged broth with floating crouton islands. Cap off the night with a caramelized apple tart tatin and a demitasse of coffee, and you'll want to light up a Gauloise and toast Charles De Gaulle.
Find the best three-course French dining deal in town at La Sardine
Chef/owner Jean Claude Poilevey, who opened La Fontaine on Clark Street in the early '70s, is credited with bringing the bistro to Chicago. His La Sardine has been around since 1998, located smack across the way from Harpo Studios. Perhaps the best bistro in Chicago, its organ meat preparation really provides the edge—the sweetbreads here hit the trifecta of perfection (crunchy, creamy and caramelized). Sweet and spicy blood sausage with hints of pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg balanced with caramelized apple are incredible, and the Grand Marnier souffle is a destination in and of itself. The piece de resistance: On Tuesday nights you can order any appetizer, entree and dessert for $25.
See Moulin Rouge through hallucinogenic eyes at Marche
Vivo may have been the first Jerry Kleiner restaurant to break the hobo grip on the West Loop's skid row, but Marche was the restaurant that truly launched the Randolph Street corridor. With its upside-down umbrellas, curvilinear walls and custom velvet-back chairs, Marche rocks a design aesthetic that can only be characterized as Moulin Rouge on mushrooms. The plates might be classic, but the presentation stylized by executive chef Paul Wildermuth echoes the whimsical design aesthetic. Brothy beefy French onion soup is topped with a caramelized blanket of earthy gruyere, while tender braised lamb shank meat shrugs right off the bone. The profiteroles remain one of the sweetest bistro endings in town.
Simple French seafood preparations at Mon Ami Gabi
Lettuce Entertain You enterprises runs a stable of "concept" restaurants, but lest you group them in with soulless corporate pap like Applebee's, take a look at Mon Ami Gabi. While there are locations in Vegas, Oak Brook and Bethesda, Maryland, the Chicago location seems touched by the singular personality of executive chef Gabino Sotelino. Dark woods, gilded accents and leather banquettes serve as the perfect environment in which to sample excellent French seafood preparations. Eschewing pomp and circumstance in the form of overwrought sauces, flaky skate come topped with a simple brown butter lemon sauce; crouton-encrusted trout grenobloise tastes as if it was just pulled from the river by a cunning fly fisherman.
More French we'll vouch for:
For organic French bistro fare try Michael Altenberg's Bistro Campagne
For some Old Town style French romance, check out Bistrot Margot
One of the best neighborhood bistros is Lincoln Park's Cafe Bernard
Get your foie gras-fix post-ban at Cyrano's Bistrot & Wine Bar
Bucktowner's who want La Sardine should visit sister spot Le Bouchon
Garlicky mussels abound at Hyde Park's La Petite Folie